A REGULAR HELMSMAN
Once the ship's compass had been adjusted, we dropped the
Compass Adjuster and the Liverpool Pilot and proceeded to sea to
join our convoy. By this time (April 1944) sailing in the Atlantic
was much less of a risk than it had been even as little as one year
ago. Even so, there were still plenty of "U" Boats out there, and our
convoy was well protected with the usual escort of Corvettes,
Destroyers, and some other larger RN ships. We had not been at sea
for long before the "sealed orders" were opened, and we knew that
we would be heading for Abadan. Via Gibraltar, the Mediterranean,
Port Said, the Suez Canal, and Aden.
I was really thrilled that at last, I was accepted as a regular
"helmsman", and no longer a "learner". Since I didn't know how
difficult or easy other ships were to steer, I just accepted that St.
Clears was the same as all other ships. I heard other seamen
talking of "Gyro" the compasses used on some ships, but the St.
Clears didn't have one, so it was an experience that I would
have to wait for. In the meantime, I enjoyed the feeling of
responsibility as I steered the ship. In those days, the windows of the
wheelhouses on merchant ships were protected from strafing planes
with large thick blocks of slabs of material that looked like tarred
concrete. There were slits left for us to see the rest of the world
outside. Even with this restricted vision, it was possible to see the
ship ahead, and others in adjacent columns. In rough weather, it was
also possible to see the bow rising and falling in the seas, and the
waves breaking over the bow. I always thought this to be most
spectacular. Of course, with a compass to attend to, one couldn't
spend too much time admiring the weather! Such idle thoughts were
better served whilst on lookout - but even there, one had to be
especially alert for any signs of danger.
As a newcomer to the wheelhouse, I enjoyed my "tricks" on the
wheel. Of the three men on each four hour watch, two men did an
hour each on lookout, and two hours on the wheel, with the other
hour on "stand by". The third man did an hour on "stand by", two
hours on lookout, and then another hour on "stand by". This duty
(with no turn on the wheel) was known as the "Farmer". The
"Farmer" was rotated each watch so that everyone had an "easy"
We hadn't been at sea for very long when one of the AB's
mentioned in the messroom a novel way of steering the ship. Instead
of using the wheel every time the ship went off course by one degree
or so, he told us that he would let the ship go off course two or three
degrees, (say, to starboard,) and then put the wheel hard over to port.
As soon as the ship started to respond, he then released the
"equalising valve", allowing the rudder to return to "amidships"
very quickly. According to him, the ship would take some time to
return to it's course, giving him more time in between using the
wheel. The "equalising valve" was a valve placed in between the
hydraulic pipes leading from the wheel. As the helmsman turned
the wheel (say) to port, hydraulic fluid would be forced through the
left hand pipe to operate the steering engine. Similarly, the same
thing happened on the starboard side when the wheel was turned in
that direction. The "equalising valve" was positioned between the
two pipes, and connected them when it was opened. Normally, it
was kept closed, and really I imagine, should only have been used
by the engineers when "setting up" the steering gear. When it was
opened, the wheel had no effect at all on the rudder which
presumably, would either return to, or remain in the amidships
position. The helmsman would then have to look at the "Tell Tale"
indicator to see just what the position of the wheel was. The "Tell
Tale Indicator was a brass pointer coupled to the wheel which
swung in a 180º arc as the wheel was turned either way. After
steering the ship for some time, it sometimes became necessary to
consult the "Tell Tale" indicator to see just where the rudder was.
Such a practice had its pitfalls. In the first place, being "new" to
steering, I did not want to take a chance on "cocking things up" (any
more than I might otherwise have done!) Also, whilst the ship was
in convoy, the Officer on watch would immediately notice any great
deviation from the regular course, having the other ships (especially
the ship ahead) from which to judge the ship's relative position.
Finally, being new to steering, even though the scheme sounded
plausible, I was not really sure that the whole thing was not one of
those tricks played on younger crewmembers by the older men. I
wasn't prepared to take that risk.
Happily, we remained unmolested by whatever "U" Boats there
were still out there in the Atlantic, but we did receive quite a
buffeting from the weather. Although the storm was not really
severe, we had these large boxes containing aeroplanes on the
hatches, plus the steam locomotives on deck. The Locomotives gave
us no trouble, but we had to "turn to" one night to reinforce the
lashings on the boxes. Being large, but not very heavy boxes, they
caught the gusts of wind and whatever water was washing over the
fore decks quite readily. Those on Number Three hatch had shifted
due to the wind, and the rolling effects of the ship. In fact, one box
had shifted a couple of feet, and had deposited itself on to the drum
of one of the winches. There was no chance of moving it back to the
centre of the hatch, so we made the best of it and put extra lashings
on it to keep it in the position it had landed itself in. It gave us no
more trouble, but on arrival at Abadan, the winch had to be stripped
down and a new shaft installed.
Eventually, we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, and into the
Mediterranean Sea. Until the landings in North Africa in November
1942, and later the landings in Sicily and Italy, the Mediterranean
had been one of the most dangerous places for merchant ships to be.
The "Malta Convoys" were (and still are!) legendary for the number
and ferocity of the German attacks, the numbers of seamen, both in
the Royal Navy, and in the Merchant Navy, who lost their lives, and
the number of merchant ships sunk whilst trying to get essential
supplies to Malta. Operation "Pedestal" must surely remain as the
most heavily escorted, and yet most dangerous convoy ever to put to
sea. Fourteen fast merchant ships sailed from Gibraltar to Malta in
August 1942, accompanied by no less than 72 Royal Naval ships
including three aircraft carriers, two battleships, six heavy cruisers,
32 destroyers, numerous submarines, corvettes, and patrol boats. Of
the fourteen merchant ships, nine were sunk, and five eventually
made it to Malta. Those that made it to Malta were all badly
damaged. Two Aircraft Carriers were sunk plus numerous other
Royal Naval ships.
Now, here we were in a much less warlike Mediterranean. Even so,
we were still escorted by several Royal Naval ships. Blackout
precautions were just as severe as they had always been, and
lookouts were kept at all times, day and night. For those of us
entering the Mediterranean for the first time, it was magic. It was
probably psychological, but the water did seem to be bluer than
anything I had seen before. With just a bit of sea running, we had
the coast of North Africa to our starboard side. It isn't always hot in
April in the Mediterranean, but now the weather was warm, and a
pleasant change from the cold English March weather and the cooler
trip through the North Atlantic. Despite the almost placid sea
conditions, and the attendant feeling of well being, sailing through
this most beautiful of areas, I could not help thinking of the great
dramas that were unfolding as the Allied armies were advancing in
Italy, not all that far to our North. Some ships left the convoy to put
into Algiers; others left the convoy to go to places like Sicily and
Italy. After about a week of this almost pleasant sailing, the
remainder of the convoy arrived at Port Said.
In Port Said, we tied up briefly to buoys whilst a large searchlight
was placed right in the prow of the ship, and suspended, over the
side, and just below the deck level. The searchlight was contained in
its own box, and firmly suspended and lashed to prevent it from
swinging from side to side. An employee of the Canal Company
would accompany the light to make sure it was in working order
when required. The beam of light would pick out reflectors placed at
certain spots along the length of the canal. From the bridge, the light
reflected from the buoys or other sources acted like "cats eyes"
placed on the main roads. As it turned out, we traversed the canal in
daylight hours, but I imagine the lights are put on all ships in case
there should be a hold up, causing ships that should have travelled in
daylight hours, to have to complete the journey in darkness.
It was compulsory for all ships using the canal to have such a light.
Many ships that used the canal regularly had a light built in to the
bow of the ship. On the Orion, one of my previous ships, a large
shield like plate bearing the company crest could be swung away
from the bow, exposing the built in searchlight, which was also
accessible from the forepeak.
We remained tied up all night. There was no shore leave, but we did
take on some stores and fresh water. In the morning, a "North
Bound Convoy" appeared from the canal, and proceeded to various
berths. It was almost eerie, seeing these ships emerge almost as if
from the desert. With the last of the North bound ships through the
canal and safely dispersed in Port Said, our convoy began to make
it's way south.